by Ben Daviss
When an international team of scientists came together to find the greatest source of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, they found it’s not cars or cow farts: it’s refrigerants.
But it won’t be much longer if a new technology from Europe can be commercialized.
Demand for air conditioners, especially in the developing world, is soaring. According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 700 million air conditioners will be in service in 2030. Already, a fifth of the world’s energy is used to cool people, food, and space. Those devices, most of which are leaky and inefficient, use carbon-based chemicals to absorb heat.
A group of scientists from England and Spain have discovered that using an electric current, or even just brute force, to alter the molecular structure of a malleable crystal called neopentylglycol (NPG) can work just as well.
The carbon-based refrigerants that make cooling units work are low-temperature liquids which absorb heat and change to a gas. The gas is compressed and the heat is extracted and vented, converting the gas back to a liquid, and the process begins over again.
NPG’s molecules have weak bonds, making them easy to shift in relation to each other. Compressing NPG with a magnetic or electric current, or physical pressure, absorbs an unusual amount of heat – an amount comparable to common chemical refrigerants.
NPG, a common ingredient in lubricants, paints, and other compounds, is nontoxic, nonflammable, and can be made from cheap, readily available ingredients.
The University of Cambridge is working to commercialize the technology, but researchers at the University of Zurich might go one better: they’ve shown a way to cool an object below room temperature without using any energy.
They based their design on something called a “Peltier element,” an electronic circuit that uses an electric current to move heat from a cool object to a warmer one. The Zurich group has found that, under certain conditions, the heat transfer can occur without any external energy source.
The result of the experiment was only a small difference in temperature, but they attribute that to using an off-the-shelf Peltier element. In theory, an ideal Peltier circuit could cool something down to about -50°F.
Showing this is possible is one thing; any commercial application, however, is years away.
TRENDPOST: Liquid chemicals vaporize into the air, leak into the ground, and often are noxious or toxic. Replacing them with solid-state materials is a rich field of research that will open new opportunities to entrepreneurs and investors, particularly after 2025.